Alan Hubbard: Mary Rand, the multi-talented Golden Girl of the Tokyo Olympics, recalls her sporting life as "Marilyn Monroe on spikes"
Tuesday, 31 July 2012
Indeed, in his personal rankings list he puts her in second place only behind his big mate Sebastian Coe – and mischievously seven places ahead of the man with whom he has had a right old ego-clashing ding-dong over the respective merits of their own Olympic achievements, Sir Steve Redgrave.
I am delighted that Rand is rated so highly by someone who knows exactly what sacrifice and dedication it takes to be an world class all-round athlete because hers was the first gold medal story I wrote when I made my own Olympic reporting debut in Tokyo in 1964.
So it was great to catch up again with the happily not forgotten superstar for whom the phrase Golden Girl was invented.
The first British woman to win a track and field gold medal, breaking the world long jump record in the process, she also took silver in the pentathlon, the five-event forerunner of today's seven-event heptathlon, and bronze in the 4x100 metres relay.
Now an elegant and lively 72-year-old, the one-time blonde bombshell of British sport is currently back from her home in California for the Games and to visit relatives. And she says she can't wait to cheer on the girl who has already been labelled 2012's Golden Girl, Jessica Ennis.
But she warns that fate should not be tempted by prematurely hanging the phrase, like the medal itself, around the neck of the Sheffield star.
She worries that so much pressure is on her to win the Olympic title this weekend.
"I love Jess, she's wonderful," Rand tells me. "But will she win gold? Let's just say I am as confident as I can be that she will do Britain proud. I'll be cheering for her and she will have the crowd behind her.
"But you have to appreciate that every single athlete out there is the best in their country and anything can go wrong when you have all those events. Look what happened to me in Rome."
At those 1960 Olympics, as 20-year-old Mary Bignal from a council house in Wells, Somerset, she was favourite to win the long jump and led the qualifying with a personal best of 6.33m (20ft 9¼in), a distance that would have won her the silver in the final. But she then struggled with nerves, botched her run-ups and crashed out of the competition, running through the pit on her first two jumps and managing only 6.01m (19ft 8¾in) with her third attempt to finish ninth.
Rand admits that there were also quite a few romantic distractions. "We were young, we were single, we were in Rome,'' she recalls with a smile, a smile the world came to love, not least four years later when she won the gold in Tokyo, shattering the long jump world record with her fifth leap of 6.76m (22ft 2¼ in). "It was my day of days," she declares.
By 1964 she was no longer single. She had met the first of her three husbands, the British Olympic oarsman Sidney Rand, in 1961, agreed to marry him after three days and did so five weeks later. By the Tokyo Games, she was a mother as well as a wife, but still very much a 5ft 8in blonde sex-bomb with stunning good looks.
"Marilyn Monroe on spikes," is how the former national athletics coach, Tom McNab, described her.
After the Games pin-up girl was named BBC Sports Personality of the Year, wore a mini-skirt to collect her MBE from the Queen and Mick Jagger nominated her as his dream date in a pop magazine. Asked at the time if, had she not been married, she would have taken up the Rolling Stone frontman's offer she giggled: "Well, he has got those great big lips."
A newsman's delight, she was always ready with a quip and a quote. After beating a Spanish girl in a photo finish, she gasped: "Just as well my nipples were bigger than hers."
In the run-up to the 1968 Olympics in Mexico she was injured and did not make the team. It was the end of her Olympic dream but she was approached by a model agency and was considering a fashion career when her five-year marriage broke up. Shortly afterwards she fell for American Olympic decathlon champion Bill Toomey and moved to the United States, remarrying another American, John Reese, in 1969. She now lives with him in him in Atascadero, California.
Last weekend she received the Freedom of Wells, her Somerset birthplace. "We re-enacted the parade when I came back from Tokyo with the gold medal, it was fantastic," she says. Crowds welcomed her back in their own Somerset style with a banner reading "We be turrible proud of 'ee".
"This has been a very poignant visit for me," Rand comments. "During the parade they had the original Olympic music playing and I was thinking, 'Oh my god, this is so moving.' My brother is 82 and when I left he said, 'I'll probably never see you again.' It was very emotional."
Her old school, Millfield, where she won a scholarship but was later expelled after going off to Paris with her then Thai boyfriend, a fellow pupil, gave her a lifetime achievement award.
For the Games she is staying in Hertfordshire with Jean Pickering, widow of her former coach, Ron, the BBC commentator. Four of Rand's nine grandchildren are in this country and she has one great-granddaughter.
She has stayed in touch with Jean since Ron's death in 1991. "She's just a fantastic person," smiles Rand. "She does so much for charity and young athletes, and doesn't get the recognition she deserves.
"I had a great rapport with Ron. He died far too young because he had so much left to offer and I find it such a shame now that all these young athletes don't know who is was and what he did for the sport.
"Yet so many kids have benefitted from his memorial fund. I think it's about time they all got together and celebrated what a great guy he was. Ron was so anti-drugs and, as it turned out, he was right."
Rand was always super-fit but all the punishment her body took training and competing eventually took its toll and she has had both hips and her right knee replaced. "I've also had my shoulder done," she adds. "You name it I've had it. I 'm okay, but I have to be a bit careful. I do creak rather a lot. Now I'm like any other 72-year-old."
Comparing her days to the present, Rand offers: "The big difference between 1964 and now is that we were all genuine amateurs. We were really struggling athletes. No-one got rich through sport then. When I won gold I was a working mum. I had a job in the post-room with Guinness and they were very kind because they allowed me time off for international meetings, and at least I got a three-course lunch every day, with a free half a pint of Guinness.
"Today, they have such superb medical back-up. I see them having personal masseurs and I think, 'That would have been great.' We dealt with aching limbs ourselves. If one of us needed a backrub, one of the other athletes would do it.
"I wish we could get back pay for all the time and effort we put in, but I am not envious, that's the way the world goes. I think there was more camaraderie then and we certainly had more fun."
Her room-mate in Tokyo, Ann Packer – who, incidentally, Thompson puts sixth on his all-time list – later won gold in the 800m. She says: ''Mary was the most gifted athlete I ever saw. She was as good as athletes get, there has never been anything like her since. And I don't believe there ever will be.''
Unless Ennis comes good in London. "I'm keeping my fingers crossed for her," says Rand. Gold fingers, naturally.
Alan Hubbard is an award-winning sports columnist for The Independent on Sunday, and a former sports editor of The Observer. He has covered 16 Summer and Winter Olympics, 10 Commonwealth Games, several football World Cups and world title fights from Atlanta to Zaire.